Off the Grid and Underground: 4 of Boston's Best Musical Hideouts

From basements to alleyways and abandoned brownstones—discover the city's hidden music venues.

On any given night outside the Paradise Rock Club, Boston University students line the sidewalk of Comm. Ave., their eager faces illuminated by the bright bulbs of the marquee. Down the road at Brighton Music Hall, expectant Goths and metal-heads brood happily among themselves, while across town the crowds file behind Fenway Park into The House of Blues, or past tour buses and up the stairs of The Sinclair.

From dark thudding dance clubs to antiquated theaters, mosh-pit concert halls and cheering arena crowds, Boston’s live music scene is as diverse and varied as music itself. For those looking for national headliners and throngs of fellow fans, visit any of the above-mentioned concert halls; if the lines, crowds and national acts of Boston’s premier venues are not for you, the city is home to a number of off the grid clubs, bars and concert halls where the music is authentic, the setting intimate and everybody in the crowd is on the same page as you are. From Boston’s home for 1960’s Greenwich Villagers to havens for Berkeley student jams, here are four of Boston’s best under the radar music venues.

Band on Stage

Great Scott

A steeple tolls the hour through the midnight mist of Allston—or is that the bell of the T lumbering down Commonwealth and across Harvard Ave.? Such a crossroads at midnight, as many guitarists will tell you, is a place where the devil himself can be met to make a duplicitous deal: mastery of your musical craft in return for your eternal soul. Whether such a deal has gone down there in the heart of Allston is up to who you ask (Aerosmith did get their start in an apartment a block up the street…), but if it has, rest assured the first stop for that born-again guitar deity would surely be the green awnings of Great Scott.

Located squarely on the crossroads of Commonwealth and Harvard Ave., the glowing windows of Great Scott pulse nightly with a dim beat. The door swings open and guitar licks rollick out onto the sidewalk. Banging shut again, the pulse continues; to the passing rocker-at-heart, it takes a strong will to walk on. Inside, Great Scott is a rock 'n' roll paradise: a checkered floor stretches from the door to the stage in back, the white press-metal ceiling glows with the stage light, and the gnarled wooden bar and high-tops are home to tall, cheap cans of Narragansett Lager. In back on stage, small national and local acts play their way to the big time with an earnest energy that feeds from the closely packed audience to the stage and back. Great Scott won’t ask for your eternal soul at the door; ten or twenty bucks should do it for a night of rock 'n' roll glory.

  Door to Wally's

Wally’s Café

If you’re walking down Mass Ave. towards the South End and you suddenly hear the murmur of a trumpet and the thump of a bass, look around and you’ll notice a peculiar sight. See that townhouse across the street? Yes, the one with the boarded up windows. You’re not imagining it; that cacophony of brass and strings is coming from the basement of a forgotten South End brownstone: Wally’s Café and Jazz Club, one of Boston’s best musical hideouts. Opening the door reveals a narrow room with a few tables, a dusty bar and a stage nestled in the back. Duck around the air ducts and find a table if you can; if it’s the weekend just try to find a place to stand. Every night, all 365 in a year, Wally’s provides live music of all genres, stiff drinks, bagged potato chips and a bygone musical experience unlike any other left in Boston.

Door to Club Passim

Club Passim

The history books will tell you that the mid-century folk scene was born and thrived in Greenwich Village, New York. In 1958 however, 200 miles north of Manhattan, an unknown BU student named Joan Baez was regularly strumming chords in a basement coffeehouse hidden down a Harvard Square alleyway. The hideaway was called Club Passim, and over the next sixty years its stage would host the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Buffett—and deny Bruce Springsteen a show along the way.

Six decades down the line, little has changed since Baez first walked down the stairs into Club Passim. Ceiling level windows reveal the feet and legs of oblivious sidewalk passerbys; columns support the retail store above between candlelit tables that spread to the edge of the stage, which rises slightly off the ground and almost places the performers among the audience. There’s no backstage, only the entrance hallway where you buy tickets and wait for the bathroom, so when the show ends you’d be hard-pressed not to meet and have a conversation with whoever just performed. Both off and under the grid, Club Passim is an intimate Boston institution that continues to fulfill the traditions and experiences of its storied past.

Band on stage

Red Room at Café 939

The abundance of colleges and universities throughout Boston is one of the city’s strongest musical attributes. Young musicians, either studying their craft full time or playing in bands alongside their finance degrees, can be found at innumerable clubs and bars across the city (Wally’s and Passim are notable examples), honing their skills on stage and jamming with fellow young musicians. 

Of the many stages where students play, one of the most notable is The Red Room at Café 939, which hides within the gilded grandeur of a former racquet club. Located at the top of Boylston Street and in the midst of the Berklee College of Music, artists of all calibers and experience pass through, but this Berklee-run venue specializes in giving young bands a shot at getting the country’s most discerning music students moving on the dance floor. Don’t expect alcohol fueled cavorting (it's neither served nor allowed), but expect these young bands to do their damnedest to leave you drunk on their music. 

Alex Oliveira
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